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Russia says people can decline its vaccine. But for many, they’ll get fired if they do


By Zahra Ullah and Anna Chernova, CNN

If you ask the Kremlin whether Covid-19 vaccination in Russia is voluntary, its officials will tell you it is. Yet authorities in Moscow have put together a policy that essentially gives people in public-facing roles little choice but to get their shots.

Faced with stubbornly low vaccination rates, Moscow authorities announced just over a week ago that at least 60% of staff in service industries — spanning everything from catering to housing and transport — must get vaccinated with at least one shot by July 15.

“Vaccination remains voluntary,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

But while Peskov says someone can refuse a vaccine, they just might lose their livelihood for doing so.

“If a Muscovite works in the service sector and he has to get a vaccine but he has made a decision not to get vaccinated, he simply has to stop working in the service sector. And if he wants to, he will look for a job in another place that is not connected with those areas where the mandatory presence of vaccinations is imputed,” he said.

As of Monday, people in Moscow are now required to show to show proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test result or proof of a past Covid-19 infection in the last six months to be allowed entry to the city’s cafes and restaurants.

Russian officials have been giving regular updates on television and in briefings on the rapidly worsening situation across the country. Worrying images have started popping up again on Russian social media sites illustrating the increasing burden of coronavirus across the country. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg reported record high daily death tolls Monday, according to Russia’s anti-coronavirus crisis center.

Patients have been seen lying in hospital corridors in St. Petersburg — which is currently playing host to a number of Euro 2020 soccer matches — as an overburdened medical system battles an increasing number of infections. Images of queues of ambulances waiting outside hospitals to admit patients are reappearing.

Mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin warned Monday that the burden was also growing on hospitals in the capital. “Over the past week, we have broken new records for the number of hospitalizations, people in intensive care, and the number of deaths from coronavirus,” he said, according to state media agency RIA Novosti.

Despite being the first country in the world to approve a coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, for use in August 2020, Russia has since lagged behind much of the world in vaccination rates.

As of Monday, 23 million people in Russia — a country of around 146 million — had been vaccinated with at least one dose, the health minister told state media. Some 16.7 million people have had both shots, according to figures released by the government last week. That’s around 11% of the population. Around 46% of people in the US have been fully vaccinated. In the UK, it’s about 48%.

As of Monday, Russia had reported 5,472,941 coronavirus cases and 133,893 deaths, according to official state figures, though the true toll is believed to be much higher due in part to the way Russia classifies coronavirus deaths.

Even though the pandemic has hit Russia hard, the idea of being forced into vaccination is unpopular.

While the Russian government insists it has not introduced a blanket mandatory vaccination scheme, testimony from ordinary workers — who did not want their full names to be used — suggests a huge sense of pressure and urgency to get vaccinated across the board.

Among the Muscovites lining up outside a vaccination center opposite Gorky Park in the blistering June heat were people working in hospitality, construction and business, as well as students. The center’s receptionist told CNN that in the last few days people had been lining up between 8 a.m. right through to closing time at 10 p.m.

“I have to get vaccinated because of my work, because I work in the catering industry,” said 29-year-old bartender Dmitry, who was waiting for his first shot.

“But I know that I would have to do this one way or another. Sooner or later they will press everyone to the point that we will all have to do it,” he told CNN, without giving his full name.

Also waiting in line was Yegor, an IT specialist. Despite not having a client-facing role, he said he had no choice about taking the vaccine.

“My work made me,” he said, also declining to give his full name. “They told me at work that I need to [get vaccinated].”

“I actually think it’s bad that they did this. It’s supposed to be voluntary, while in fact it is ‘voluntary-compulsory,'” Yegor told CNN, referring to an ironic term harking back to the Soviet-era meaning people have freewill, but in reality have no choice but to comply with what authorities want.

“It is not right. Every person has to have a free choice whether or not to get vaccinated.”

Russian authorities have tried to cajole people to get the shot by offering sweeteners, such as free cars and circus tickets. But now they are also turning to more restrictive measures. Employees in Moscow face losing their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated when asked to, and employers could be subject to fines or administrative suspension of their businesses for up to 90 days if they don’t meet their targets.

Moscow authorities appear to have known the policy would face some resistance — they announced the new policy as Russians’ attention was drawn to a highly anticipated meeting between President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden.

Around 500 people protested in the Novopushkinsky square, in the center of Moscow, on Saturday, state-run media TASS reported. They were demanding the right to choose whether to be vaccinated, and to stop the dismissal of workers and immediately restore them in their jobs, according to independent m​onitoring site OVD-Info. They called for the removal of coronavirus restrictions in the catering industry “and any kind of Covid discrimination in society and business,” according OVD-Info.

62% of Russians don’t want a Sputnik shot

Beyond the Russian capital, other regions are also introducing restrictions. The governor of the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, home to the vacation resort city of Sochi, announced that from July 1, hotels will only accommodate guests with a negative coronavirus test result or a vaccination certificate, and from August 1, only vaccinated travellers will be allowed in.

Anna Popova, the head of Russia’s public health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, has said compulsory vaccination could be introduced in other regions of the country “if necessary.”

Part of the major uphill battle for Russia is that vaccine hesitancy is rife in the country. A survey published last month by independent pollster Levada-Center suggested 62% of Russians are unwilling to get vaccinated with Sputnik V.

Alexandra Arkhipova, a social anthropologist and researcher at the university RANEPA in Moscow, told CNN there was a “crisis of people’s confidence in political and medical institutions.” Arkhipova has been studying trends of social media engagement and internet searches of Russian citizens and said that many believe there is no “clear and transparent information” about the vaccination process, so they are driven to look for ways to get around the system.

Russian media has been filled with reports of some people buying illegal counterfeit vaccination certificates to circumvent the measures.

Sellers offering fake certificates which Russians can use as “proof” of getting the vaccine are prevalent on Russia social media sites and encrypted messenger app Telegram. Prices vary depending on whether the buyer just wants a physical certificate or if they want their data uploaded to state databases and registers, Russian media reported.

Russian state media has also been reporting on the government’s crackdown on what they call “scam artists,” with the interior ministry releasing video of sting operations against couriers and sellers of the counterfeit certificates.

“The constant feeling that officials are lying or forcing them to get vaccinated, hiding the truth about vaccines, makes people feel morally right to buy a fake vaccination certificate,” Arkhipova said.

A 31-year-old businesswoman from Moscow who wished to remain anonymous said she wanted to buy a fake certificate because she didn’t think enough was known generally about Covid-19 vaccines.

“In Moscow, it’s prohibited to go to restaurants [without a negative PCR test or a proof of vaccination]. I live alone and eat out all the time, all my meetings take place at restaurants. Doing a PCR test every time I want to have a cup of coffee is not an option,” she said.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - Europe/Mideast/Africa

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